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Private LTE Gets Rolling in 2021: Predictions for the New Year from the Anterix Team

Posted to Anterix in the Utility Management Group

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At Anterix, we pay close attention to trends in the electric utility industry that impact the adoption of private LTE networks to enable grid modernization.  As a team, we believe 2021 will be a pivotal year for private LTE.  But beyond that, views abound regarding the trends that will help drive that change.  So, in a battle for clairvoyance supremacy, members of the Anterix team gazed into their crystal balls, read the future, and share here their own views.  May the greatest oracle win! 

Rob Schwartz, CEO:  We already knew interest was high, but by the end of 2020 a number of leading electric utilities were showing clear, concrete momentum toward building private LTE networks to support their grid modernization efforts.  While it is impossible to call out every instance of progress we’ve seen, I will highlight a few major examples.  First, a really big one:  in May, the Federal Communications Commission changed its rules to make 900 MHz spectrum available for utility broadband networks.  That really kicked things off.  In October, NYPA announced a pilot project with Anterix to assess use cases on 900 MHz private LTE technology.  And in December, Ameren contracted to lease Anterix’s 900 MHz spectrum in its service territory for 30 years.  All of this following quickly on the industry’s tremendous success winning CBRS spectrum for private LTE at the FCC’s auction in August.  And now, just a few short weeks into the new year, other utilities have actively taken steps toward 900 MHz private LTE, including Xcel and Dominion., through the pilot programs they’ve initiated.   I believe it will no longer be a question of “if,” but “how soon.” 

Ryan Gerbrandt, COO:  I believe Rob is right, but I think 2021 will even go a step further.  Not only will the industry make a move toward private LTE for grid communications, but I believe individual utilities will start to work in a cooperative, concerted way to support each other in designing, procuring, and operating their private LTE networks.  And we hope regulators will see the wisdom of that cooperation:  in September 2020, the Southern States Energy Board (a compact of 16 states and territories) adopted a resolution urging utilities and regulators to coordinate their planning to deploy a common network technology and spectrum band for grid communications networks.  I believe that there will be continued momentum in 2021 for industry and government to embrace such an approach, unlocking tremendous opportunities enabled by industrywide cooperation in implementing a common grid communications platform:  900 MHz private LTE. 

Alice Moy-Gonzalez, SVP Strategic Development:  I wouldn’t dispute any of that, but I think the real story will be the broader trend forcing the private LTE developments Rob and Ryan identify.  That trend is the marked, customer demand-driven growth of distributed energy resources (DERs), particularly electric vehicles (EVs) and solar at a nationwide scale.  This isn’t a new trend by any measure, but in 2021 the need to seamlessly integrate DERs into the grid, including adoption of cutting-edge monitoring and control technologies, will drive operators nationwide to aggressively accelerate their modernization efforts.  Yes, I believe the best platform for these efforts will be utility-controlled, secure, reliable, high-performance broadband communications networks like 900 MHz private LTE—but it’s the DER ramp-up in 2021 that will really accentuate the need for foundational digital platforms like 900 MHz private LTE. 

Chris Guttman-McCabe, Chief Regulatory & Corporate Communications Officer: I agree with Alice that there are bigger factors at play that will help make 2021 a pivotal year private LTE, but DER growth is only the result of a larger trend:  the national priority placed on addressing climate change.  To this end, the new Administration has announced its intention to invest $1.3 trillion in infrastructure modernization by 2030.  You don’t need a crystal ball to see the impact this could have—not only on the growth of DERs but also on the development and deployment of new grid technologies that will benefit from robust, utility-grade wireless broadband connectivity.  I believe it will be climate change policy that will have the biggest impact on grid modernization in 2021. 

Rich Creegan, VP Sales:  Those are great big-picture predictions, but let’s talk about what’s right in front of us, the thing that keeps us all up at night.  The SolarWinds cyberattack would have been a wake-up call if we weren’t already aware:  we have to ensure our critical systems are protected from attack, including air-gapping those systems from the public internet.  With 900 MHz and CBRS now available for LTE, I believe demand for private networks will continue to build in 2021.  As the dispatchable resources that Alice and Chris referred to come online, our ability to ensure security for ever-more diversified assets and actors will become increasingly important.  In 2021, I believe the industry will move aggressively to phase out less-secure, legacy communications technologies and migrate to modern, cyber-focused LTE networks.  This can be a year when utilities take the steps necessary to modernize their infrastructure to make a potential cyberattack less likely to succeed.

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